Analysis: Why Rape Jokes Are Useful, Even When We Hate Them


Take Daniel Tosh (please), and the reaction he received for making the following joke: "Wouldn't it be funny if that girl," he said, referring to a member of the audience who had earlier interrupted his set to say that rape jokes are never funny, "got raped by, like, five guys right now? Like right now?"

Funny person/writer Elissa Bassist, writing for The Daily Beast, took a look at this joke and said, nope, not funny, and also it's not even a joke. Funny person/occasional maker of rape jokes Louis C.K. first seemed to defend the joke even though he really didn't and then actually said, yeah sure, it's fine, but also rape is a serious and truly horrible act that directly and indirectly impacts how women live their lives and the pervading culture in which they live it. And comedians/TV hosts Whoopi Goldberg and Joy Behar were of the mind that "if it works, it's ok."

Rape jokes (and jokes about anything awful or frightening) are also very, very useful, even and especially when they are very, very bad.

An example that Lindy gives is the shift in humor at the expense of minorities, specifically black people. It's absolutely true that, as she says, sixty years ago (and certainly far, far more recently than that) jokes were more openly racist in nature, and these were considered funny by a larger group of people who would find them funny today. But not telling those jokes anymore isn't what created that shift. The shift occurred because of people who stood up and said, to varying degrees, "NOPE." And a lot of the people who did that did it through humor, by using the very language used against them, using and re-using and subverting. (Take, for example, the comedy of Richard Pryor. Or this Dick Gregory set -- and its intro -- from 1965.) Change isn't an ending. You know? Change, by its very nature, is a process. And that process requires a free exchange of words and ideas by any number of people who believe they are absolutely right.

Am I going to laugh if a male comedian jokes about, say, raping a passed-out or unwilling woman? Or about bashing someone's brains out? Or raping a child? Or brutalizing a gay man? Or finding members of the transgender community funny because people who don't look like you happen to exist? No, probably not. But I am probably going to really, really enjoy comedians and critics and bloggers and comedy fans who take those jokes and the language they use and subvert, critique and make these their own. I am going to likely enjoy or at least be pretty curious about the art inspired by language that is hurtful and oppressive, and by the comedy that unfolds when a weapon is transformed into an instrument for something greater. This is the argument against policing language but, instead, building on what exists, offering irony and subversion and context and using the language of those who hold power and those who would seek to dominate and oppress and hurt in order to offer them a differing viewpoint in a way that can truly and effectively resonate.

So the goal shouldn't be to tell someone to stop making rape jokes or saying that rape jokes are never, ever funny. The goal should be to use that language, delve into it, comment on it, subvert it, and build on it to create something different and something useful.

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